Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, made famous from the Oscar-winning movie bearing her name, visited the nation’s largest Native American reservation to see the damage caused by millions of gallons of wastewater that spilled from a Colorado mine.
She met with Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye on Tuesday to hear about what he saw when he visited the mine in August, just days after a crew working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unleashed the waste tainted with heavy metals. The agency says 3 million gallons spilled.
Begaye talked about the large gully that formed near the mouth of the mine, where the breach occurred. It was several feet deep and quite wide, he said.
“We know it’s more than 3 million gallons. It was millions of gallons that came pouring out,” he told Brockovich.
Uncertainty lingers over the long-term dangers to public health and the environment from the spill, which contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. EPA claims that the threat has eased, but Navajo leadership is skeptical.
Some Navajo irrigation systems remain shuttered until the tribe receives results from its own water and sediment testing. As a result, Begaye has said thousands of acres of crops have gone dry.
Begaye and Brockovich met with farmers throughout the reservation to discuss the effects of the spill on irrigation as well as the legacy of contamination left behind by decades of uranium mining.
Brockovich also planned visits to three high schools on the reservation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Describing the spill as a preventable environmental disaster, Brockovich echoed the concerns of Navajos and the call on the federal government to “do what is right and clean up this mess.”
“The continuing situation resulting from the Gold King Mine spill is unacceptable,” she said in a statement. “The EPA’s actions and response reflect an organization that is drastically underfunded, understaffed and in need of an overhaul.”
Brockovich was portrayed in the 2000 movie, “Erin Brockovich,” which earned actress Julia Roberts an Oscar. The environmental advocate helped investigate a major case of groundwater contamination in California in the early 1990s that inspired the film.
A series of hearings begins this week in Congress to investigate the spill at the Gold King Mine near Silverton. Republican committee leaders in the House and Senate have said that EPA officials have withheld documents that could explain what went wrong when a cleanup team doing excavation work triggered the release.
Begaye also has voiced frustration over the federal government’s response. He said Friday that the EPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency declined the tribe’s requests for continued help in dealing with the spill.
“For years, we have consistently been at the receiving end of toxic spills and contamination with no adequate relief as the United States government and private companies became wealthy off of the natural resources of the Navajo Nation,” the president said in a statement. “This is not the end but the beginning as I will continue to fight for my people.”